"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


A surprising new way to discourage risky behaviors?

Aug. 25, 2008
Courtesy University of Chicago Press Journals
and World Science staff

Ad cam­paigns aimed at re­duc­ing un­healthy be­hav­iors like binge drink­ing of­ten fo­cus on the health risks.

But new re­search sug­gests a sur­pris­ing new tac­tic ex­ploit­ing so­cial psy­chol­o­gy might work bet­ter. The trick: link a risky be­hav­ior with some oth­er group of peo­ple that the tar­geted au­di­ence would­n’t want to be con­fused with. 

Researchers have long cast about for new and better ways to re­duce un­healthy be­hav­iors like binge drink­ing. (Image: U.S. CDC)

Such a cam­paign, in oth­er words, would “at­tend to how be­hav­iors act as mark­ers or sig­nals of ident­ity,” wrote the sci­en­tists, Jo­nah Berger of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Penn­syl­va­nia and Lind­say Rand of Stan­ford Uni­ver­s­ity in Cal­i­for­nia, in the newly pub­lished find­ings.

The pair organized their own ex­pe­ri­men­tal pub­licity cam­paigns. These were aimed at col­lege stu­dents—but with an eye to­ward anoth­er group whom these par­ti­ci­pants had noth­ing against, but would­n’t want to be con­fused. 

Groups of peo­ple seen as some­how sep­a­ra­te by anoth­er are known as “out­groups” in so­cial psy­chol­o­gy jar­gon. The “in­group” of­ten sees out­groups as in­fe­ri­or, but not always.

Berger and Rand con­ducted two in­i­tial stud­ies based on a pre­sump­tion that col­lege stu­dents would con­sid­er “grad­u­a­te stu­dents” an out­group. 

In one stu­dy, col­lege stu­dents were led to be­lieve that grad­u­a­te stu­dents con­sumed more junk food. Stu­dents ex­posed to this mes­sage chose 28 per­cent few­er junk-food items than par­ti­ci­pants who thought their group ate more junk food, the re­search­ers re­ported.

In anoth­er stu­dy, re­search­ers put fli­ers in fresh­man col­lege dor­mi­to­ries. In one dorm, the fli­ers em­pha­sized the health risks of binge drink­ing. In anoth­er dorm, the fli­ers linked binge drink­ing to grad­u­a­te stu­dents. Par­ti­ci­pants in the dorm with the sec­ond fli­er drank at least 50 per­cent less al­co­hol than those who saw the health risk fli­ers, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found.

In a third stu­dy, stu­dents on their way to a cam­pus ea­tery were sur­veyed about per­cep­tions of the me­dia. One group read an ar­ti­cle about pol­i­tics and pop cul­ture. A sec­ond group read an ar­ti­cle as­so­ci­at­in junk-food eat­ing with on­line gamers. When re­search as­sis­tants watched the two groups or­der­ing food, they found that the group who had read the ar­ti­cle about on­line gamers made health­i­er choices. 

“De­ci­sions are not only based on risks and ben­e­fits, but al­so the ident­ity that a giv­en choice com­mu­ni­cates to oth­ers,” Berger and Rand wrote. Thus “shift­ing per­cep­tions of the ident­ity associa­ted with a risky be­hav­ior can help make bet­ter health a real­ity.” The find­ings are pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Con­sum­er Re­search.

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Ad campaigns aimed at reducing unhealthy behaviors like binge drinking often focus on the health risks. But new research suggests a surprising new tactic exploiting social psychology might work better. The trick: link a risky behavior with some other group of people that the targeted audience wouldn’t want to be confused with. Such a campaign, in other words, would “attend to how behaviors act as markers or signals of identity,” wrote the scientists, Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania and Lindsay Rand of Stanford University in California, in the findings published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The researchers conducted their own experimental publicity campaigns. These were aimed at college students—but with an eye toward another group whom these participants had nothing against, but wouldn’t want to be confused. Groups of people seen as somehow separate by another group are known as “outgroups” in social psychology jargon. The “ingroup” often sees outgroups as inferior, but not necessarily. Berger and Rand conducted two initial studies based on a presumption that college students would consider “graduate students” an outgroup. In one study, college students were led to believe that graduate students consumed more junk food. Students exposed to this message chose 28% fewer junk-food items than participants who thought their group ate more junk food, the researchers reported. In another study, researchers put fliers in freshman college dormitories. In one dorm, the fliers emphasized the health risks of binge drinking. In another dorm, the fliers linked binge drinking to graduate students. Participants in the dorm with the second flier drank at least 50 percent less alcohol than those who saw the health risk fliers, the investigators found. In a third study, students on their way to a campus eatery were surveyed about perceptions of the media. One group read an article about politics and pop culture. A second group read an article associating junk-food eating with online gamers. When research assistants watched the two groups ordering food, they found that the group who had read the article about online gamers made healthier choices. “Decisions are not only based on risks and benefits, but also the identity that a given choice communicates to others,” Berger and Rand wrote. Thus “shifting perceptions of the identity associated with a risky behavior can help make better health a reality.”